Bike shops in WNY, for a few hours, were not deemed an essential service

Apr 3, 2020

On March 20, bike shops across Western New York were told they would have to close down because they were not an essential service. Less than a day later, after most of those stores came together to plead their case, they were told they could remain open.

Ethan Johnson in Campus Wheelworks on Elmwood Avenue
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Making a COVID-19 music playlist? Some essential businesses like Campus Wheelworks have one to add a little humor for those coming in for bike repairs. 


“You have to be able to laugh at the things that you can laugh at. And you've got to have a little bit of humor here and there to help get through it,”  Campus Wheelworks owner Ethan Johnson said.” “So yeah, we started a playlist on Spotify with like the Campus COIVD apocalypse playlist.’Down with the Sickness’ is one that will usually make people crack up if they know what that song is because it's just ridiculous.”


“Down With the Sickness is one that will usually make people crack up if they know what that song is because it's just ridiculous,” Johnson said.


The humor doesn't mean Campus doesn't take the situations seriosuly. The door is locked during business hours due to small space as they only allow a few customers in at a time to adhere to social distancing.


Two weeks ago, Johnson was faced with a tough question many businesses have recently been forced to ask-- are we essential?.   


“We got the notice that a larger number of businesses were going to be closed and deemed no longer essential. And we weren't on the essential list,” Johnson said. 


Johnson filled out a form that Friday for Campus Wheelworks seeking designation as an “essential business” pursuant to the New York State Executive Order 202.6.

Credit Ethan Johnson / Campus Wheelworks


About six hours later, they received an email from Western New York Empire State Development saying they were denied.


Thank you for seeking designation as an “essential business” pursuant to the New York State Executive Order 202.6.  Based on a review of your request, your stated business location does not serve an essential function.  As such, your business is subject to the required 100% workforce reduction pursuant to Executive Order 202.6.  Please also continue to comply with all other Executive Orders and recommendations from the New York State Department of Health. 


“We're not doctors, but if other businesses that were listed on the essential businesses list such as auto repair or liquor stores we're going to be allowed to stay open, we felt that we are in a similar level to that and we should also be open to keep our customers rolling because we have a lot of people that use their bikes for transportation and recreation,” he said. 


That’s when Johnson and other Western New York bike stores started working together.


“We basically started calling between the other bike shops, you know, talking to people at Bert’s and people at Tom's and just kind of trying to work together to come up with a solution,” Johnson said. 


Bert’s Bike and Fitness Tonawanda location General Manager Jim Costello said he told Johnson after they were denied to give the process time. Costello was confident the decision on their shops would change.

“There were two previous states that had closed or given shelter in place orders prior to New York State,” Costello said. “You know, one was in California and the other one was in Pennsylvania. And both in San Francisco and in Philadelphia, the bike stores were deemed essential.” 


Johnson ended up writing a response back outlining his concerns with the initial decision.


“To keep car repair places open, but shut down all bike shops would be a very kind of classist move and kind of a closed minded,” Johnson said. “Not modern thinking in a time where people are trying to make some moves to green options and think more socially responsible with their transportation.” 


Johnson originally sent this:


So, if I am understanding this correctly, liquor stores have been deemed essential while bicycle shops, who are keeping their communities viable transportation functional (much like an automotive repair shop, also deemed essential) are non-essential? This is a very disappointing response. This is a very classist and car centric stance to take. Many essential workers use bikes for transportation. Many delivery drivers use bikes for transportation. Many of my customers do not own cars and bikes are their only form of transportation. If things get bad enough that gas becomes a shortage, or too expensive for those out of work, bikes are a very sustainable, affordable and reasonable form of transportation. Bicycles are a much safer social distancing form of transportation than public transportation. Shutting down all bike shops is a huge mistake. We are not first responders, scientists working on a cure, or doctors saving lives. If things are not severe enough to shut down liquor stores and automotive repair shops, then we should remain open in some capacity until they are.


Ethan Johnson


Through a coordinated effort, all of these Western New York bike stores were informed they could remain open. 


Johnson was later sent this:


Dear Ethan,

 While the retail operation of your business would not be essential, we will allow the repair function of bicycle shops to operate in order to service the transportation need. Thank you,ESD


“I was able to speak to some people at the New York State Conservation Board,” said Costello. “They were all for they were able to speak with people in the governor's administration and Mayor Bill de Blasio, his administration and by Saturday morning, we were deemed essential here in New York.”


It was a major relief for Johnson, who is now hiring back some of the staff he had to lay off at the beginning of COVID-19 preparations. 


"I would say that that conversation is one of the toughest that I've had to make in my career," Johnson said in regards to laying off workers. "You know, it was something I'd hoped would wait for the day I was telling everyone we're going out of business. Like we all need to go look for new jobs. We don't know what tomorrow will hold. That is real scary. But the thing that was really you know, that if there's a silver lining, is that our staff was super understanding. I mean, everybody's going through this right now. It's not our fault or any one person or group of people's fault. So my staff was really reasonable and very understanding and they've been super flexible."


And close to downtown Buffalo, there's a noticable uptick in riders the past few weeks.


“A lot of people ride bikes and as proven by how busy we've been since we've been deemed essential,” Johnson said.


In Tonawanda, Costello said business has slowed a little, but riders are out and about.


"Here on Niagara Falls Boulevard, now with things being closed down, I see bikes riding down the boulevard every 10 or 15 minutes," Costello said.


It's easy to think of bicyclists in a city setting. But Costello sees the importance in suburban areas first hand.


"If they can't take the subway and they don't have a car, either they're walking or better yet they're riding their bike," Costello said. "That bike becomes essential. That's how someone can get food. That's how someone can go to the store or go to the hospital or things like that. So that they need to have transportation even out here in the suburbs. I have three or four people that come here every day, that only have bikes, and you know, this is how they get around in our society. So I see that it's essential every day and now I think the public is seeing that it's essential as well."


One thing you will notice if you ride up Elmwood currently-- there isn't many cars parked in front of businesses.


"We're right here on Elmwood Avenue, which is one of the busiest streets in Buffalo and right now, and I can't see a parked car from where I'm standing, which is never the case," Johnson said. "You know, any time of the day or night, there's always cars. Parking is always a problem. People are constantly complaining about it. The streets are open. So, you know, not that there aren't cars driving around, but traffic is greatly reduced. So we're seeing a much greater percentage of like cyclists to cars than usual. And the roads are probably safer, because there are less cars. There's less congestion."

Parking on Elmwood hasn't been a problem during the quarantine
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Elmwood Village resident Patrick Rajczak entered Campus for the first time in months to tune up his bike earlier this week. 


“I've been here before. I've come and brought that in for tubes and stuff before,” Rajczak said. “Well I need to, that's why that's why I'm here. I haven't been on it yet at all because last summer, I think those wheels pretty much just had the run of it.”

Campus Wheelworks workers fixing bikes
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Rajczak said it’s a necessity to have a working bike during these times for his mental and physical health.



“It’s (an essential) service when people like myself don't have the tools to do this. I usually have, for small tweaks, I have friends do it,” Rajczak said. “But as far as you know, bothering somebody like that, this being local and being small business owners is great for us, great for the village.”


Johnson said he doesn’t know what tomorrow will bring, but is grateful for the time being. A new Campus Wheelworks was supposed to open in May on Niagara Street. That is currently on hiatus. 


“We're especially lucky compared to most of our neighbors who are totally closed and they're just running off their online store, if they have one, or they're laid off,” Johnson said. “Like if it's a restaurant, they're in way worse shape than we are but, we're still trying to do everything we can.” 


For now, Campus is doing everything they can, with a smile and timely song when possible. 


“Toxic by Brittany Spears has become one of my favorites,” Johnson laughed.